Photo by Richard Wiltshire: https://www.trover.com/d/1m11S-quantock-hills-somerset-england
‘The sun in silence rising over the sea makes me feel a sense and a sympathy with some larger life, and to imagine some larger scheme.’
So wrote Richard Jefferies in his notebook in early 1887, in what would be the last year of his life. He was bedridden much of the time, suffering from a progressive tuberculosis which had affected his intestines, spine and, finally, his lungs. But his mind was as active as ever, his memory providing him with crystal-clear images from his past wanderings on the downs of Wiltshire and Sussex, and by the south coast – images that burned with the brilliance of the sun and the wandering constellations of the night. In some of his notebook entries he employs the elements of nature, as well as the flowers, trees and birds, to focus his thought on the problems that have beset the human race through the centuries: the great fear of death and the ‘superstition’ of organised religion; the domination of wealth and the extraordinary pursuit of money and goods; and the failure of our moral and intellectual systems to make any real sense of the role of mankind on the earth or to find ways to reduce human suffering.
He senses the existence of this ‘larger scheme’, or ‘Greatness’, but what is mankind’s role in it, or relationship with it? These questions are not to be answered by the conventional ideas of deity, as he already made clear in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Heart’. In another entry in the notebook, Jefferies writes:
‘Thought and Soul Instinct tell me [that there is] Something More.’
Something more than the ideas of deity and immortality is what he means. He has concluded that the latter two concepts are essentially the product of the ‘dream’ approach to metaphysical enquiry. They are not based on actual experience. Similarly, the materialistic ideas emanating from science of his day he finds equally inadequate.
‘To believe that there is nothing Beyond – that all is mud matter – is as senseless as to believe in the Deity and the dream basis.’
The conviction that there is something beyond all experience, life, death, and all that can be thought and imagined, is what seems to sustain him during his last months. Increasingly he refers to ‘the Beyond’ as a noun, to recognise its reality. At times he equates the Beyond with ‘the Idea of the Whole’ but it becomes clear that he sees it as undefinable, something ‘other’ that is outside our minds.
‘I see that this life is entirely different to what I understand. I see that the other Nature or Beyond is entirely different. I see that the whole scheme is quite outside. A tree – an outside idea at once in itself.’
The startling last sentence suggests that Jefferies is starting to apply the ‘Beyond perspective’ to ordinary observations. If it were possible to look at a tree in the absence of all previous perceptions and knowledge, its riot of twisting branches and rich glow of leaves would surely impress upon our minds a sense of its ‘otherness’. Perhaps nature and the elements, the rising and setting sun, might in some way offer clues to the existence of this Beyond.
‘To look at the sun alone over the trees – sunset – enough of itself to prove other ideas.’
The Beyond or the Scheme, he senses, has nothing to do with good and evil or pleasure and pain, or human life at all. He cannot understand the Scheme because of his own personal judgements about his experiences: they are good or bad. But by breaking through this heavy chain of narrow, personalized thinking, Jefferies feels that it might be possible ‘to realise the edge of the scheme’. If he himself is of no consequence to the Scheme, then it cannot be judged by the criteria that are applied to human experiences. Naturally, it is outside and beyond such matters. He would rather identify himself with this Scheme, rather than hope for anything from it which is the typical approach of most religions. Whatever the Scheme might be, it has nothing to do with concepts of god.
He finds ‘more rest’, he says, in trying to identify with the Scheme.
‘In this sun over the sea all my earth-feelings seem very small and almost nothing: I can feel a high existence.’
In his later years Jefferies wrestled continuously with his ambivalent feelings toward nature and the elements. While, though their beauty, he is able to live a more intense life, ‘as if every grass blade and leaf were a torch….’, still he finds no purpose or plan in nature. In short, it is without soul, or anything resembling the human heart.
‘There is no heart in nature (the Universe) [Jefferies’ brackets]. Man must supply it, heart. That seems to be his peculiar position far more so than intelligence which is shared by so many other things. Canon. The Heart (above all creeds and reasons).’
Jefferies ‘burned life like a torch’ – he was solar in nature and wanted to see a powerful heart energy ignite the human race. We would then labour not for money and goods or for imaginary heavens after death, but for the fulfilment of our souls’ desire here and now. This dramatic change of heart would undoubtedly help bring about a better human life for those to come in future times. If the soul were able to free itself from all the ideas of materialism and religion, it would surely be satisfied only with the great unknown that is the Beyond or the Scheme.
‘This life – this now – is itself beyond – since it is an idea outside my ideas…Birds on tree -…they are Beyond.’
Day after day, as he inches ever closer towards death, Jefferies grapples with the problems that he presented in ‘The Story of My Heart’ in 1883. His mind has been nailed down to past ideas of materialism and superstitious religion; he doesn’t understand nature and the universe, or why it seems empty of human ideas and sympathy; and is there anything to pray for that is not a deity? Perhaps he has come up against the Buddhist idea of the void, but, as yet, is unable to see the other side of it, which is the world of tangible things – of ‘suchness’. I don’t want to pursue this idea now, as I admit I don’t fully grasp it. However, I feel that Jefferies was moving into this territory and, had his health recovered, might have produced an even more remarkable book than ‘The Story of My Heart’. This follow-up work was clearly in mind when he was writing many of these later notes.
I am not able to provide any satisfactory conclusion to this post. But I do feel that, in the two final quotes above, Jefferies is expressing some fresh and powerful perceptions, again demonstrating the originality of his thought despite the intense difficulties with which he was afflicted.